Getting To Know You: Unstructured Character Interviews

As many of you know, my background is in clinical psychology.  After a brief stint doing therapy, I now occupy the paid portion of my days with research and teaching.  When Joely suggested a Character Clinic last week, I immediately knew that I wanted to talk about character interviews.   This has been my latest obsession, a spinoff from my other obsession with Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, & Conflict.  Pot and I have both used these with considerable success over the last month or so, and I’ve turned Zoe into an enthusiast as well.  It’s a technique with lots of room to play and adapt to your specific needs, so I thought I’d share it here.

Now as someone in psychology, when I hear the term “interview”, I get a slightly different list of things in my head than most people.  Most folks, when they hear “interview”, think of job interviews, or interviews with important people for the news or talk shows.  I think of interviews as a form of assessment.  There are three types of interviews used in psychology: unstructured, semi-structured, structured.  As such, I’ll be doing three posts in the series.  Today I’m going to talk about unstructured character interviews.

Unstructured interviews are exactly what they sound like.  These are interviews that have no predefined form, where you just allow the interview to unfold as it will.  From a therapeutic standpoint, it’s not the most efficient as there’s often necessary information you miss, but from the perspective of interviewing characters, it’s one of my favorite techniques to use.

This technique (in fact, all the types of interviews I’ll be discussing the next few days) is most effective when you have someone to interview you.  My crit partner does it for me.  The idea is that you have someone who can ask you questions and your job is to respond as whichever character is being interviewed.  You should think like they do, speak like they do, be that character. You could do this in person with a tape recorder, or if your interviewer is not in the same physical locale and/or you prefer to avoid transcription, you can do it via chat or email (most chat programs allow you to save the transcript of the conversation–I am particularly fond of GoogleTalk for this feature as it neatly integrates our conversations into my Gmail archives and allows me to tag them as I desire).  For unstructured interviews, I find that chat works the best, as it maintains the spontaneity and allows you to respond on impulse, which often reveals interesting things about your characters that you didn’t know.

I like to use the unstructured interview at the beginning of a story.  I find it’s a fantastic way to get to know my characters and begin to learn their voices.  And since I often begin with only a kernel of an idea for plot, this allows me to explore the possibilities.  I personally find it most useful if the interviewer takes on a particular role (as characters will respond differently to different people just like real life people do).  For my current WIP, Pot decided to interview my characters as if she were the ghostwriter who’s going to chronicle my hero’s rise to Alpha in his pack (of werewolves, in case you didn’t know).  I, in turn, tend to interview other people’s characters as if I was their therapist–and depending on the character they could be there of their own volition or have been mandated by someone else.  Hey, you can take the girl out of the therapist’s chair, but you can’t take the therapist out of the girl.  You and your partner find what works for you and go with that.  Just remember that the name of the game is staying in character.

Depending on the role your interviewer chooses to take, s/he may want to begin with some simple questions.

  • What’s your name?
  • Where are you from?
  • What do you do?

If you know absolutely nothing about your characters, these sorts of get to know you questions–the sort you’d ask anybody you were just getting to know–are a good place to start.  If you happen to start out knowing a bit more about your characters (for example, I knew that Conall, the hero of my current WIP, was a werewolf and a doctor) that can open up all sorts of interesting lines of questioning.  I find it most helpful if the interviewer has some idea of what I’m planning to do with a piece–no matter how little or how much that may be.  As the answers to the questions come out, new questions get asked at the whim of your interviewer.  Things that s/he is curious about or doesn’t understand about your character.  More detail about something you said.

In a recent interview I did with Zoe’s main characters for her third novella in a trilogy she’s working on, she knew only that the heroine wound up with the hero (as in physically in the same place…he winds up being responsible for her).  As interviewer, I knew the circumstances that the heroine would be leaving, and I went with that, asking progressively more probing questions until in 20 minutes she’d figured out the entire opening set up, which was interesting and surprised us both!  After that we did her stoic alpha werewolf hero (yeah we’re both writing paranormals), about whom she knew exactly…nothing.  The interview allowed her to find his voice and even in the questions she (he) didn’t answer (because he didn’t want to talk to a shrink), she figured out a lot of information about him in what he wouldn’t say.

As a general rule, interviewers should stick to open-ended questions.  These would be questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.  Open-ended means that the character has room to elaborate.  So instead of asking, “Were you scared when the ninjas broke into your house?” ask “What was going through your head when the ninjas broke into your house?”  Interviewers shouldn’t put words into the character’s mouth.  Give him/her a chance to say what s/he was thinking or feeling about something.  And always ask follow up questions: Who?  What?  Where?  When?  Why?  How?  Follow the trail until the character runs out of answers, then pick another branch and do it all over again.

Check back tomorrow for my discussion of Semi-Structured Character Interviews.

And as I get such a kick out of conducting such interviews, if you’re interested in my services as a character therapist, send me an email at kaitnolanwriter (at)  I’m happy to help!

7 thoughts on “Getting To Know You: Unstructured Character Interviews

  1. That’s really interesting. I’ve sort of done this myself, but not for characterization, specifically. I use David Morrell’s Conversation to get the pre-writing ball rolling. You just talk to yourself about the book, and “Why?” is, of course, the best question to keep asking. I’d be interested in trying it with someone else sometime since I think my subconscious knows I’m trying to trick it. Great post, Kait!

    Jess´s last blog post..The Arsonist and the Firefighter

  2. Yeah, it’s not a super radical idea, but I think the largest value of doing it with someone else is that we’re not stymied by our own attempts to play Jekyll and Hyde. Not to mention that different minds think differently and you are likely to get totally different material that you wouldn’t come up with on your own.

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